Another day, another MOOC — #edcmooc

I’ve signed up for an already-in-progress MOOC course, “E-Learning and Digital Culture,” taught by a team of professors at the University of Edinburgh, which is encouraging students to use their blogs, Twitter accounts (@bobstep) and other online media as part of the discussion. So… greetings to any visiting classmates.

Since this blog’s usual topics are journalism, media studies, teaching and hypertext linkage, I don’t see much point in creating a new blog to go with the course. It should all fit together… including my habit of embedding YouTube videos in the blog. This is one of the “prompts” for discussion in the course, a charming exploration of “new media” networking called “Inbox” (although “Inbag” would be more literal):

Coincidentally, my last couple of blog posts were related to a previous MOOC, which I just completed a couple of weeks ago.

Other students are doing creative things already, including making a Google map where we can pin our locations — an amazing spread so far…

My first contribution to the already extensive discussion managed to stray far from digital — to some of H.G. Wells’ writings as far back as 1895, in a discussion of utopian and dystopian themes in a few short videos about contemporary media. Here’s a copy, with links to two films and the Wells information:

Apologies for joining the course so late and trying to catch up with a lot of discussions in one evening. In addition to the main themes of this course, I am interested in the culture and history of technology, pre-digital as well as digital.

The first short film, Bendito Machine IIIhas echoes of Javanese wayang shadow puppet plays — which also have to do with ritual, communication with powerful forces from above, and with storytelling. Perhaps our dystopic or utopian stories about technology have a deeper message about our feelings of powerlessness, and our hope to get more control of things through knowledge, ritual and flickering lights from above (or from behind a screen). For the worshippers of the machine in this little film, there was little control of the technology, no two-way communication, and the ultimate end was dystopia and destruction.

was charming — while not quite utopian, it showed another magical technology that, this time, made communication possible. It also showed how we are drawn to “new media” by accident, curiosity and trial-and-error. (As well as including a homage to the softer “technology” of the post-it note, a mainstay of communication on refrigerators everywhere.) And it was fascinating that the “user’s” exuberance over his connection with the other RedBag user led to his accidentally ripping the bag and extinguishing its magic — much like an exuberant Facebook user accidentally dumping a cup of tea into a laptop. Technology is fragile. (And, as for the RedBag, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” as Arthur C. Clarke said.)

I found it fascinating that spoken dialogue was not important in either film, partly because I just finished my first Coursera experience, Scott Higgins’ wonderful course on “The Language of Hollywood,” including the transition from silent to sound film:

On the topic of earlier utopias or dystopias, H.G. Wells gave us several examples — starting more than a century ago. His 1895 time traveler found a distant future where dependance on technology had degraded human nature. His War of the Worlds saw superior (Martian) military technology ultimately defeated by Earth’s biology. His 1933 The Shape of Things to Come (and the 1936 film, “Things to Come”) had an Anglocentric scientific/technological “benign dictatorship” put an end to war (and to most religions and diverse cultures) after a century of war. One person’s utopia may be another’s dystopia.

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Posted in Computers, Digital Culture, Education, media studies, socialnets

Trailing the Lonesome Pine — finding a musical centennial

This square dance was what really stuck the line “… On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine” in my head. I’ve since learned The Trail didn’t stop (or start) with the dance, but you can watch it, then sing along for fun while you read the rest of the story.

The Book "The Trail of the Lonesome Pine"

The Book

My film course has led to an interesting popular-culture chain of media, starting with a 1908 novel, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, and wending its way to a 1913 pop song, an outdoor drama still performed each summer in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, and a singing square dance still done in New England, all available on the Web, especially in the Internet Archive and on YouTube, with separate Wikipedia pages for the novel, song, and film.

Because of the coincidence of the 1913 song’s centennial, here are some links and connections, mostly a celebration of the Internet’s varied ways of archiving media — and giving me ways to distract myself. (This page may be a bit of a jumble, with some duplication because of pieces cut and pasted from my movie course discussion site; I’ll try to come back and clean it up some day.)

1913 recording Edna Brown (Elsie Baker) & James F. Harrison (Frederick J Wheeler) at Internet Archive.

The original song is more a product of the barbershop quartet era of sentimental melodies and harmonizing. Laurel and Hardy managed four voices between the two of them, with the help of a bung starter.

The words are sweet and sentimental and do use the name of the book’s heroine, June, a favorite of every barbershop rhyming dictionary. A bit of that melody is used behind the title credits for the 1936 movie, but the words are not sung. Instead, we get the (composed for the film?) song “Twilight on the Trail” with its reference to a “lonesome pine on the hill.”

The Song

The Song

The 1937 recording by Laurel & Hardy from their film “Way Out West.” (In the video clip, the very low and very high voices on the last verse both appear to come from Stan Laurel, under the influence of liquor and a knock on the head, respectively)
A search of YouTube will find many more singers and dancers on The Trail, from the Laurel and Hardy scene to a player piano roll, Rex Allen (with and without Brenda Lee), British ukulele strummers and New England square dance musicians. (Watch the dance or watch the caller Tony Parkes and musicians. Here’s Tony’s site, and here’s one for Ralph Sweet, whom I first heard call this dance in the 1970s.)

“On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine” (1936), the first big outdoor three-strip Technicolor film, played an important part in Scott Higgins “The Language of Hollywood” online “MOOC” course I’ve been taking, and is discussed thoroughly for its “restrained” approach to color in his book, “Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow.” (Fox’s novel, a not-quite-western frontier romance, with men on horseback and a battle to establish law and order, had inspired earlier silent films, but I still haven’t seen them.)

I’d first heard the title “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine” as the refrain of an old song. I remember Arthur Godfrey singing snatches of the catchy tune on his TV and radio shows in the 1950s. (Media students: Look him up!) And more recently, I heard the tune at Ralph Sweet’s New England square dances in the 1980s, particularly a “singing square” that used the original song’s refrain and encouraged the dancers to sing along on the line “In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, on the trail of the lonesome pine.” If singing while dancing doesn’t stick a tune in your head, nothing will. (More recently, the lyric set me to questioning whether the area mentioned in the book is rightfully called part of the “Blue Ridge,” which I associate with the ridgeline of the Blue Ridge Parkway a couple of hundred miles east. But “Blue Ridge” has two syllables and “Cumberland” three, and the song gets to say “…like the mountains, I’m blue.”)

The Film

The Film

My first encounter with the movie wasn’t this film course, it was in Sharyn McCrumb’s novel, “The Devil Amongst the Lawyers,” set around the time the 1936 film came out. McCrumb’s characters blame the movie and the 1908 John Fox Jr. novel that inspired it for feeding outsiders’ unflattering preconceptions of Appalachian mountain folks.

After I read her novel, interested in her critique of 1930s journalists, I bought myself a copy of the movie on DVD. It starred Sylvia Sydney, Fred MacMurray and Henry Fonda, and the dialogue of “we-uns” and “furriners” and “green-up” (for springtime) got old in a hurry.

Hollywood’s uneducated and feuding mountaineers couldn’t have been a fair picture of this area in the 1930s, even if it was close to the truth in the era Fox wrote about — the 1880-1900 coal boom years in Southwestern Virginia. The movie pulled the characters out of those horse-and-buggy days and into “modern” times, almost in the way it did with the “Wild West” of 1930 singing-cowboy movies.

Today, Fox’s novel is available for free at the Internet Archive, Open Library, Project Gutenberg and a 35-chapter Librivox free audiobook version that read me to sleep for a couple of weeks.

For a 105-year-old novel about “progress,” “nature” and change, I rather liked the melodrama about the coming of the railroads and coal mines to the mountains. Despite the “Blue Ridge” reference in the song lyric, the story takes place in farther Southwestern Virginia and Southeastern Kentucky. The town of Big Stone Gap, Va., still celebrates Fox’s work with June-through-August outdoor theater performances of a play based on the novel. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover the theater page at until the season was over.

More links….

Here’s an “Appalachian Studies” resource guide for the film and novel: Http://

Here’s More about McCrumb’s  novel.

Posted in Internet, Internet Archive, movies, popular culture, Virginia

Back in school at old school in a new way

This is going to be fun. I am for the third time enrolled at Wesleyan University… Continuing an old tradition of “leave job… return to college  (preferably Wesleyan)…”

When I quit my daily newspaper job at The Hartford Courant, my goal was to take a year off, finish my courses for a master’s degree in anthropology, and spend a summer in Ireland researching my M.A. thesis. The one year spun into three after my advisor left on sabbatical and never returned. My new advisor, ethnomusicologist Mark Slobin, directed me into a couple of new courses and even made me his teaching assistant for a course on Ethnicity and Popular Culture, my introduction to Wesleyan’s cinema resources. He was enormously patient, and it was a struggle to keep the master’s thesis to 280 pages, even after one of the “informants” asked to be removed from it completely.

The resultant editing and rewriting were part of the inspiration for learning everything I could about “word processing” at the university computer lab, and buying my first computer. That led to my taking computer courses during the summer after graduation, editing a newsletter for Wesleyan microcomputer users, and landing a job writing (in English, not computer code) for a software company — which paid me to take more software-and-writing courses on the side.

When the founder sold the company and technical writing started feeling “old,” I added up the courses I’d taken already and headed back to Wesleyan to complete a second master’s — a “Master of Arts in Liberal Studies” — by writing a thesis about hypertext. (With the help of cognitive science prof Marc Sebrechts, I kept that “liberal studies final essay” to 135 pages, but it was 1988 and hypertext hadn’t been made the organizing principle of the World Wide Web. After the Web happened, I headed to UNC Chapel Hill to — eventually — write a much longer doctoral dissertation, very slowly.)

Now that I’ve taken my retirement from full-time teaching at Radford University, I can’t face a September without some involvement in higher education… so I am enrolled in a Wesleyan University online course:

The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound, and Color with Scott Higgins

“This Film History course explores how fundamental changes in film technology affected popular Hollywood storytelling. We will consider the transition to sound, and the introduction of color.”

I hope to use what I learn the next time I teach a course about the portrayal of journalists in film and popular culture, possibly offering it as a more-online class myself. Professor Higgins’ course sounds fascinating, and I suspect I’ll learn plenty about film — and about online teaching in the process. Here’s how he describes it in the syllabus:

Each change in technology brought new opportunities and challenges, but the filmmaker’s basic task remained the emotional engagement of the viewer through visual means.

We will survey major directors and genres from the studio era and point forward to contemporary American cinema. Our aim is to illuminate popular cinema as the intersection of business, technology, and art. Through film history, we will learn about the craft of filmmaking and how tools shape art.

The course is a “MOOC” — a Massively Open Online Course — hosted by  Coursera, whose motto is “Take the world’s best courses, online, for free.” (See another Wesleyan professor’s reflections on teaching her first MOOC.) Since my first UNC course as a teaching assistant in 1995, I have produced Web pages for every course I’ve taught. I’ve used blogs, wikis, online forums, “course management systems” and podcasts, but I’ve never taught or taken a fully-online course, massive or otherwise.

Lectures will be online videos. We students will be on our own for film viewings — and I’m already tracking down the 10 films at local libraries and online suppliers. ( helped me quickly find several of the films at the Radford University and Virginia Tech libraries, and order others through Radford by InterLibrary Loan. I’m also buying a few, or at least renting them online.) Among other things, I’ll be interested to hear the professor’s view of the copyright (and ethical) issues involved in the posting of classic films on YouTube, which I started exploring because of my interest in hard-to-find newspaper films.

Posted in 2013, Education, hypertext, jpop, media studies, movies, Radford, Stepno, wesleyan

Old-media convergence in Scandal Sheet

(The “Scandal Sheet” title sequence at YouTube has classic shots of 1950s presses rolling.)

For a bit of summer nostalgia, I’m updating a journalism education website for my 11th year as editor… and re-watching the 1952 movie Scandal Sheet to see how much of a reporter Donna Reed was… playing a Vassar-educated feature writer with higher ethical values than her editor.

Next, I’ll dig back into Samuel Fuller’s novel, The Dark Page, which was the basis for the film. Written before he headed off to fight in World War II, it was inspired in some ways by his earlier experience as a newspaper reporter – including his start at the New York Evening Graphic, which really did run Lonely Hearts Club Balls like the one in the story.

In the film, Broderick Crawford is a tough tabloid editor whose Lonely Hearts Club Ball starts out as heartless exploitation — and leads to murder. His star reporter, with with help of Ms. Reed’s character, investigates clues that lead back to the boss. More info at Turner Movie Classics.

Although “Scandal Sheet” isn’t one of his productions, Fuller went on to become a film maker himself, and “Scandal Sheet” is included in a nice boxed set of his early films. Ironically, his two main newspaper-focused films, “Park Row (1952)” and “Shock Corridor (1963)” aren’t part of the set, but they are available separately.

Posted in AEJMC, film, Journalism, Newspapers

Spring housecleaning

Wait! You didn’t type the wrong address…

I’ve just changed the “look” of this blog drastically, something that WordPress makes it easy to do. Scroll down and you will see the same blog posts that were here yesterday, including my notes on the “Appalachian Hathaway” purchase of the Roanoke Times, my discovery that one 1950s actor was very busy in newspaper-related movies, and my notes on the dubious distinction of being named one of the top-50 journalism professors in the country, just as I was leaving my teaching job.

This new layout allows me to use longer, more specific menu headings at the top of the page, and a background graphic that the page shares with my home page.

At least for the moment, the new design sacrifices the landscape photo that used to stretch across the top of the page. And I’ve reorganized the menus, giving my collection of notes on Classic Newspaper Movies (many with video players) better display, and giving my WordPress tips a clearer title and a menu of their own.

In exchange, the layout promises to be more “Responsive” (that’s the name of the theme) on other devices, so I’ll be testing it with a phone and a couple of tablets.

Let me know if it works better for you, or if you’re already tired of the green plaid.

Posted in 2013, WordPress

Journalists in famous suspense and monster movies

I just watched “Rear Window” to review how Alfred Hitchcock presented its wheelchair-bound photojournalist character. Pretty amazing that the travel, excitement and adventure of his career are billed as such strong competition for Grace Kelly…

So far, I haven’t read the story the movie was based on, which apparently did not include Hitchcock’s romance angle. But I’m still tempted to go see what the original says about the fictitious photographer, and I made a cursory investigation to see if there was a newspaper career in the story author’s background.

The original tale, titled “It Had to Be Murder” or “Murder from a Fixed Perspective,” was by the late Cornell Woolrich, whom I found on Wikipedia, at IMDB, and in a centenary article at Time magazine. None of them mention journalism in his background, which Time summed up like this: “Woolrich’s life was as twisted and compelling as his work, and that’s saying something.” I did note two details that might interest Media Studies or Journalism students:

  1. Wikipedia and other sources (e.g. 100 American Crime Writers, edited by Steven Powell) say Woolrich left his estate to Columbia University to endow journalism scholarships in his mother’s memory. However, the Claire Woolrich Memorial Fellowship Fund, now worth more than $2 million, apparently offers a more general writing award and is not part of the journalism school, which makes sense for the bequest of a mystery writer. Columbia’s website has very little about it. But I did find it listed in this Columbia University School of the Arts writing program booklet.
  2. “Rear Window” also inspired a copyright case related to the works based on the original story; it made it to the Supreme Court, and you may run into it in an advanced media law class.

Back to the movies: After posting that “Rear Window” trailer to my 1950s Journo-Movies page, I noticed “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” right below it.

I will leave it to the movie fans, problem-solvers with the skills of a Perry Mason, and the very curious to recognize why that’s a coincidence.

Hmm. I was wondering if there were any journalist episodes of “Ironside” to make it a trifecta, then discovered a made-for-TV move and short-lived series about a 1976-77 media mogul named R.B. Kingston. Even his initials are interesting. Have to watch for that on the TV rerun channel!

Posted in fiction, film, Journalism, jpop, movies, photography

Virginia newspapers… An Appalachian-Hathaway?

Virginia BH Media papers

Click to visit any of these Virginia BH Media papers

Yesterday’s announcement that Berkshire-Hathaway Media is buying my almost-local daily, the Roanoke Times, sent me off building link lists for the benefit of recent graduates still researching media careers… (See below.)

Warren Buffett’s BH Media has been acquiring papers in this region for several years, including former Media General (Richmond, Va., Lynchburg, Va., Bristol, Va., Winston-Salem, N.C.) and Landmark (Roanoke, Va., Greensboro, N.C.) publications.  BH also has owned a good chunk of the Washington Post for 40 years. I’m beginning to think Berkshire-Hathaway Media Group should replace the “Berkshire” in its name with “Appalachian,” at least when doing business in this part of the world. (It also owns papers in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, Texas, Iowa, Nebraska and Oklahoma.)

The main Roanoke Times story, with several sidebars

Editor & Publisher, the industry trade paper, on the Roanoke Times sale.

I did notice that stories in out-of-town publications had an inflated idea of the Roanoke Times’ daily circulation  (76,000 instead of 67,000 reported in the RT itself)– perhaps based on a press release that used old data. See the discussion thread on the Times own story. I would expect an industry bible like E&P to check the numbers, but apparently not. Note the byline “by: Press Release | Dirks, Van Essen & Murray” (a newspaper acquisition firm, which you also might expect to have up-to-date stats).

Triad Business Journal on the sale

Buffett’s hometown newspaper’s version of the story (You may want to bookmark its “Warren Watch Page“) is the homepage of BH Media Group

Career Opportunities

News job openings with BH Media papers (About 16 vacancies in Virginia and nearby North Carolina, from internships to managing-editorships and a weekly editor-in-chief. Venues include  a regional copydesk in Hickory, N.C.: “The ConsolidatedEditingCenter is located in Hickory, N.C. and is the design hub for most of the World Media Enterprise newspapers in the southeast.” It does worry me that the ConsolidatedEditingCenter doesn’t have spaces in its name. IhopeTheCopyEditorsAren’tUnderOrdersToSaveSpaceThatWay.)

Internet/socialmedia-related job openings with BH Media papers (When I looked, they needed a director of Digital Media in Bristol, Va., “the chief web designer, coordinator and developer of new products for Bristol Market group which includes the Bristol Herald Courier and”; Also, a Digital Media Specialist in Richmond)

Information-technology openings (including a Web Analytics person in Richmond)

Meanwhile, for my former journalism students reading this, the largest Virginia daily that paper that Buffett hasn’t bought, has a few openings too — The Virginian Pilot, still a landmark of Landmark.

(Note: If you’re intrigued, as I was, that both the Pilot and BH Media jobs are posted at a site called “,” it’s a human resources software company independent of both Landmark and BH Media.)


Newsonomics feature on last year’s BH Media/Media-General purchase

SeekingAlpha analysis of BH Media performance

Posted in 2013, community, Future of news, hyperlocal, Journalism, Newspapers, Roanoke Times

“Top 50 Journalism Professors” — who, me?

Last year I was named one of America’s “Top 50 Journalism Professors”, and I’ve finally decided to share that link with my students as an end-of-semester exercise in critical thinking, while we talk about the differences between journalism in print, on the air and on the Web.

After class — or after next week’s final exams, or after I clean out my office the  week after that — I may come back to this page and add a few paragraphs to explain why I’m taking at least a semester or two off from teaching.

(I am also making jokes about going to a tractor-trailer driving school so that I can declare myself “semi-retired.” If I come up with better jokes, I may add them to this page, too — or at least delete that one.)


After-class update.

I was very pleased that a good number of students in my intro news writing class came up with appropriate “critical thinking” questions about that site — in particular,  two questions they should ask any news source:

  • Who are you? (In this case, who runs the website, who pays the bills, and what is the site’s real purpose?) 
  • How do you know that? (In this case, what are the criteria for the top-50 list and how was it assembled?)

In addition to “interrogating” the Web pages themselves, reading the “Home” and “About” pages, I suggested students try the Top 50 list’s find-a-school zip-code search. Surprise! Almost all the results were for for-profit schools or online-only programs. Nowhere was there any link to the major accrediting or research associations in journalism education (ACEJMC and AEJMC), and (coincidentally?) (ironically?) the search never turned up schools at which the “Top 50″ professors teach.

My conclusion: While it’s flattering to be on a top-anything list, that’s about all I can say about the “” site. Its operators didn’t respond to my request for information about their criteria or its ownership, and I assume the site is just an advertising ploy to get people to visit and click on links to “journalism schools” that are not on anyone’s “Top 10.”

I recommend that students try to look beyond the window-dressing of such list-making link-farm sites. In all searches for information, look for sources that show why they are authoritative. In dealing with higher education, that means finding real “.edu” institutional sites with lists of faculty that give names, degrees earned, publications, professional experience, previous employers, scholarly interests and contact information.

(Last year I tried that with one of the universities advertised at “JournalismDegree” and chatted online with an “admissions” salesman, who ultimately could not direct me to a page listing any journalism faculty member.)

Personal Transition

As for my own status as a “Top 50 Journalism Professor,” the final irony is that right around the time the site in question was putting me on its “Top 50″ list, the personnel committee at my school was prepared to drop me off its list entirely. There were no actual journalism professors involved in the decision, and no one from my other teaching area, Web production, so I didn’t feel too bad. I was told I would probably win another year’s contract if I appealed, but I decided not to.

I’ve had enough “best teacher I’ve ever had” student reviews to feel O.K. about my career here, even though those reviews were the exceptions more than the rule. For the past few years I simply haven’t been able to manage a four-course-a-semester teaching load and a schedule of publishing traditional “peer-reviewed” academic articles. My own disorganization and some health problems didn’t help. Student teaching reviews and conventional publications were all the committee cared about.

I’ve been better at keeping up with Web-publishing and social-media developments, with hundreds of pages published through my home page and in a half-dozen blogs, a podcast and a Twitter feed. But those things didn’t count for much to the non-journalist, non-Web-focused faculty who served on the personnel committee. (In contrast, my online media presence is probably what counted most to that link-hungry “Top 50″ list site.)

As a result, I’ve decided to retire from the faculty of Radford University and take a semester or two to get healthy, play more music, and finish the book I’ve been writing online. You can watch its progress at — Newspaper Heroes on the Air. And you can check out my past, present and future at my homepage, or get some day-to-day links by following me at I may return to teaching in 2014, here or somewhere nearby.

Last update to this page May 18, 2013

Posted in 2013, biography, humor, jheroes, Journalism, Radford, teaching

Henchmen as kittens… porn, yo?

Writing about old time radio programs at means a lot of transcribing from  mp3 files made by collectors over the years from tapes of even older transcription discs.  With my eyes bothering me on a recent morning, I decided to see whether Google’s Android voice recognition  could expedite the transcription process.

Could my Android phone “listen” to an old radio show and convert the dialogue to text? I tested the idea with the plot summary a couple of minutes into episode 6 of an “Adventures of Superman” story titled “Ruler of Darkness.” (See the “Ruler of Darkness” entry.)

I admit it is not the most static-free recording in the Internet Archive collection, and background organ music probably put the voice recognition to an unfair test.

Here is my eventual (manual) transcription, followed by Android’s two unassisted tries, for your amusement. I’ve highlighted a few words that came out right… but I’m especially curious about the words that Android replaced with asterisks. Did it think the radio announcer said something naughty?

“And now The Adventures of Superman.
“When cub reporter Jimmy Olsen was seriously injured by henchmen of Mike Hickey, political boss of Metropolis, editor Perry White swore he would drive Hickey and his corrupt political machine out of power.
White opened an attack on Hickey in the Daily Planet and chose Joe Martin, war hero and brother of Beanie Martin, the Planet’s copy boy, to run for mayor against the machine candidate in the approaching election.
Enraged, Hickey swore he would nip this reform movement in the bud.”

Android 1.

No seriously injured my kitten or you could drive up with you so don’t want to be my wife definition of elections oregon live in the b*** status other joe wasn’t serious come on out free porn yo

Android 2.

Oh yeah you’re phone daniel seriously injured my kitten like 40 with drive she out of our over then so still want to be my stuff white directions great looking forward sleep well in the b*** account brother

Definitely room for improvement…

Footnote: The accurate transcription also was made with Google’s speech to text. I would listen to a phrase, press pause on the mp3 player, press record on my phone, then speak the phrase in a normal voice at conversational speed or a little slower. I discovered that I couldn’t read the dialogue at radio actor speed if I wanted to!

Finally, I edited the result to fix proper names, capitalization and a few words here and there. End result: My eyes were still tired and my thumb hurt.

But I’ll try again sometime with a more recent, slower-paced radio show. And I’ll do some homework about Android Speech-to-Text or “voice typing” — and  Android Text-To-Speech for good measure.

Posted in Android, j-heroes, jheroes, oldtime radio

A seriously undercover reporter: Lee Tracy vs. Dr. X

An old-time-film blogger’s Twitter feed (Nitrate Diva) just alerted me that the original “Dr. X” is now available on YouTube at full-length, so here it is. I had hoped to show it to my “Portrayal of the Journalist in Popular Culture” course last semester, but couldn’t get my hands anything as good as this copy — now online, presumably because it is sufficiently out of copyright for YouTube to allow it.

(You Tube has quite a few classic “newspaper” movies.)

Maybe some of the students are still following this blog to see what they missed: A reporter versus a serial killer in a horror/comedy with hints of secret high-tech (for 1932) medical research, madness, sadism and cannibalism. The title character, Dr. Xavier, is the head of a medical lab at the center of the murder investigation, while his daughter is the reporter’s romantic interest — played by Fay Wray, a year before she was carried up the Empire State Building by King Kong.

Filmed in an early color process in 1932, “Dr. X” features Hollywood’s leading “rascal” reporter, Lee Tracy, the original actor to play star journalist Hildy Johnson in “The Front Page” on Broadway in the 1920s.

Tracy wasn’t chosen to play that role in the 1931 film, which cast Pat O’Brien as Hildy, but Tracy had a wisecracking style that kept him playing reporters and publicity men for more than a decade.

In addition to “Dr. X,” he was a tough Broadway gossip in “Blessed Event” (also 1932), a Miss Lonelyhearts columnist in “Advice to the Lovelorn” (1933), a press agent in “Bombshell” (1933), a foreign correspondent in “Clear All Wires” (1933) and a tough city editor in Samuel Fuller’s “Power of the Press” in 1943… and probably other reporters in between.

“Dr. X” is a Lee Tracy classic — in fact, the character is given the name Lee Taylor, suggesting how close the actor and this type of role were identified. As a Daily World reporter, he hides under a shroud at the morgue to get literally undercover information,  slips into a whore house to borrow the phone, startles a beat cop with a handshake buzzer, misrepresents himself as a policeman using a press-credential badge, climbs a drainpipe to sneak into a second-story window, steals pictures from someone’s parlor, hides in a closet during the scientist’s secret investigation, and ultimately solves the murder and gets the girl.

The film was popular enough to rate a sequel in 1939, “The Return of Dr. X,” which has no Lee Tracy and none of the original characters, but a similar plot. In that movie, Humphrey Bogart plays one of the suspicious characters, while Wayne Morris plays another scrappy reporter investigating horrific murders.

Posted in ethics, Journalism, jpop, movies

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